Nikil Saval’s essay on the iPod (“Wall of Sound”) caught my attention, since I spent the past eight years writing a book about the culture of music listening in the 19th century. Saval raises important questions about the connection between music, technology, and participation. Have mp3 devices like the iPod changed us? How might we measure such a change?
Saval’s attempt to answer these questions, however, oversimplifies the history. For Saval, it all comes down to Berliner’s Gramophone, which facilitated a new era of “solitary hyper-listening,” broken only by a brief utopian moment in the 1960s, when members of the counterculture believed that music could bring people together for social change.
It is doubtful that the mere novelty of the phonograph was enough to determine lasting shifts in people’s daily behavior. Further, we need to question the notion that recording technology was a source of private and introverted musicality, and that the public concert was a source of shared experience and sociality. The 19th-century music lovers I’ve studied frequently reported feeling alone in their passion for music. They listened at concerts in the midst of friends and family, but insisted that such friends did not hear the same sounds and were not moved in the same way. The longing music lovers felt, as they awaited the next visit of an orchestra, was a little embarrassing; rather than risk condemnation or ridicule, they recorded their listening experiences privately in their diaries.
Even if we accept that music listening in the 19th century was fundamentally more social than iPod use in the 21st, the question remains: social how? There were different kinds of social relationships between audiences and performers, between audiences and works, and among audience members at urban concerts from their emergence in the 1830s through the early 20th century. Elites coyly displaying the latest fashion at a recital, young clerks sitting in an astonished hush while witnessing a virtuoso, and bourgeois reformers enacting the ideal of an educated citizenry through reverent listening were all participating socially in a music event, but with different motivations and beliefs about what that participation entailed and meant.
Our analyses of iPod listening ought to hold open the possibility that what’s going on now is equally layered. People may be listening to more music than ever, and frequently doing so through earbuds, but they are likely making sense of that behavior, relative to other forms of musical participation, in ways that scholars are only beginning to explain.